Game Title: Subnautica
Completion Date: November 2021
System: PlayStation 4
Completion Time: 40 hours
My Completely Subjective Score: 9 out of 10
My One-Sentence Review: A frightening exploration of the deep, dark ocean, this game crafts a captivating story that will keep you interested until the end
I’m really not sure if it’s just me, or if everyone else is just lying, but I’ve always found the notion of stepping my own two feet into the ocean to be the most insane proposal I’ve ever heard.
And believe me, I’m really not a risk-averse person. I like having adventures; I like doing things that a lot of people may consider dangerous. For instance, for my fortieth birthday, I fully intend on going skydiving (or at least bungie jumping; I do have children after all). More recently, I removed a broken lightbulb while it was still plugged in, without the use of any protective gloves. According to my wife, this is tantamount to tying myself up and lying across a set of railroad tracks.
But however bold I may be, the idea of stepping into a large body of water, where every living thing is either – a) trying to eat some other living thing or, b) running away from something that’s trying to eat it – seems to me to be the height of insanity. To add to the absurdity, we only need to bear in mind that our particular species of mammal has become particular well-adjusted to land, and not at all well-adjusted to the water. This, of course, puts us at a gross disadvantage should any of those aforementioned creatures is hunting for some other living thing. If something should go afoul, the human will always lose to the born-and-bred hunter/killer who has been fishing for its food since it was born.
Of course, by now you can tell that I’m pretty much terrified of the ocean; and I think I’m doing a decent job of justifying my fear of that particular body of water. However, unfortunate as it may be, it isn’t just the ocean I’m afraid of. The fact is, pretty much all bodies of water are at least a little scary to me. One very telling example is when we moved into our home (close to a decade ago). We inherited an above-ground pool. Even in that pool, where there was a guarantee that nothing could harm me (except maybe too much chlorine), I still found myself having terrifying thoughts of very sharp teeth grabbing hold of my leg and pulling me under. One night, my wife came in from outside and told me that her and her mom went for a quick swim in the pool. I looked at her, completely stunned. Was she out of her mind? It was dark outside. The pool water was dark. Anything could be down there! In my mind, it sounded like the worst psychologic torment a person could inflict on another human being.
To this very day, I don’t think I would go into a pool by myself. Yes, this is complete unrealistic fear. But it is what it is. I honestly couldn’t tell you what’s wrong with me. It’s entirely possible that I watched Jaws at a much too early age.
. . .
Subnautica is a game about a lot of things. It’s about humanity’s inborn will to survive; it’s about the wonder of uncovering the mysteries the world (wherever that world may be); it’s about humanity using its non-renewable resources wisely; but mostly, it’s a scary game about scary things lurking in the depths of the ocean, ready and willing to tear your body limb from limb given the slightest opportunity.
The protagonist of this story is a simple yet resilient man named Ryley Robinson, a Non-Essential Systems Maintenance Chief. Apparently he’s the boss of those people in charge of fixing sinks, unclogging toilets, and screwing in light bulbs. However, I’m pretty sure that this title also hints at the man himself being non-essential, and with a game as cheeky as this one, I think my theory is well-justified.
In the opening video, Ryley is seen rushing into an escape pod while lights flash and sirens whir. As he looks up, we see a massive ship, the Aurora, explode. Heavy debris begins to hurl towards the planet below. Within moments, his escape pod begins to shutter and shake. A panel inside of the pod loosens, bounces around for a few seconds before hitting him smack in the face. He falls unconscious.
He wakes up shortly after crashing on the planet and, after a quick search, he finds a PDA. This device will serve as his companion and guide throughout the harrowing journey on this unknown planet. It doesn’t take long for the player to understand that there is no hope of rescue. The only thing to do is to explore this world and search for some way, however impossible, to find a way home.
. . .
Subnautica and I actually have what I would describe as an on-again and off-again relationship. This is a pretty rare thing for me. I choose the games I play pretty carefully, and generally, once I start them, I will finish them, no matter what. Yes, even if I hate them. There a few reasons for this, but the biggest one is that I’m very poor at understanding whether I’m enjoying a game or not. Yes, I know that’s weird, but we’ve already established that I’m pretty weird. The fact is, I’ve played several games that I did not enjoy until I finished it; actually, the full effect of the game didn’t even hit me until weeks after I’d finished it. Looking back on the game, letting it sit for a while, it’s pretty interesting how my views on it can change. Yes, I live a troubling life, but it’s the only one I’ve got, so I try to get on as best I can.
As for Subnautica, I think it’s one of the rare times when I just thought, “Sure, why not try it out?”. I really can’t remember where I initially heard of it. No doubt it was from one of my brainless scrolling sessions through all the headlines on my mobile device. It was an indie title that had gotten a lot of hype, and so it was in quite a few gaming headlines at the time.
As many indie games and indie game developer stories go, there is a lot of skill and luck to get enough funding to develop a game to completion. Apparently, several YouTubers helped keep Subnautica alive by offering word-of-mouth advertising as well as hype. In this video, Jacksepticeye reads a note from the developers (Unknown Worlds Entertainment), who thank him for his help in keeping the game afloat. Therefore, the making of Subnautica seems to be a real underdog story, just as many first games are from no-name developers (see my fantastic review of Darkest Dungeon for more of the same). And of course, underdog stories just make us love a game that much more.
. . .
Let’s be honest, if I were Ryley, I would probably never leave my escape pod. I would radio for help, and probably die of starvation, dehydration, or just fear of what’s lurking outside my little bubble of safety.
In the first several hours of the game, Ryley swims around the shallower sections of the world, scavenging and building some early tools to help him survive. Even in these beginning sections, I found myself pretty scared to play the game. The game features a day-and-night cycle, so every twenty minutes or so, everything would go pitch-black, and you would hear all the unseen things that are watching you and licking their lips. At night, however, many plants and creatures feature a bioluminescent appearance, which provides breathtaking imagery. But I warn you, all of this is a complete lie. It’s a scheme to lure you in before the game shows you the real game, where you have dive into the deep, pitch black water to face creatures you’ve only seen in your nightmares.
Believe me when I tell you, this is very much intended to be a scary game. I don’t do well at scary games. Sure, I’ve played several, but I typically turn the lights on, or play during the day. That said, there is an additional layer of fear since the game takes place in a massive ocean. Did I mention I’m a little bit scared of large bodies of water?
. . .
Even though we play as Ryley, we are never really given a sense of what he’s thinking as he’s diving into the great unknown. This is very likely intentional on the developers parts. It allows us to put ourselves in his place. But I can’t help but wonder; what is Ryley’s motivation for lunging headfirst into unknown, terrifying waters? Is it just a will to survive, or is it something more than that?
Survival is an odd thing. Every living thing, as far as I know, has a built-in desire to survive; to continue going on in this physical world as long as humanly possible. The fear of death actually ends up being our greatest ally in our precarious position in the universe.
However, no matter how I think of it, survival for survival’s sake seems to be a fool’s game. What is the point of going on living if we cannot think of a reason to live?
The reason is of course arbitrary. We are talking about hypotheticals. But I would like to think that the reason must be something “bigger than ourselves”.
I’m reminded of a scene in The Walking Dead. Pretty early in the series, Michonne leaves the group and decides that it would be best to live on her own. As I watched, I began to wonder, “What is she going to do? She has no friends. She has nothing. What is the point of living in this insane world if there is nothing to live for?” Sure enough, Michonne mirrored my thinking. A few scenes later, she realizes that survival for survival’s sake is not really surviving at all, and she returns to the group.
. . .
What is our friend Ryley living for? Certainly, the built-in need for survival is a strong tool, but us human’s are thinking and feeling people. We see Ryley face one perilous situation after another. What is his motivation? I have to believe, even though the game doesn’t provide any evidence, that he has a strong reason not to give up; to continue to fight and find a way off the planet. He ends up going to the very depths of the planet. For what? Without a reason to continue living, I have to believe that many others would have given up far earlier than our friend Ryley.
. . .
I titled this post, “Is Survival Worth It?”, but in reality, the more accurate title should be, “Is Survival For Survival’s Sake Worth It?” (but that doesn’t sound quite as catchy, and my editors shot it down). We can learn quite a bit from our friend Ryley. We all face dangers, tough times, and challenges in our daily lives. Maybe it’s not as perilous as trying to stay away from the Reaper Leviathan (one of the most terrifying things put down on digital paper), but in all of these situations, it’s time for us to think about why we’re living. Survival for survival’s sake is not nearly enough.